Ditching DirecTV for Broadcast?
November 14, 2006 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Can I ditch Satellite and just use (free) broadcast TV?

Here’s the thing- I spend about $50 each month for DirecTV, and primarily watch major network shows. I’m wondering if I could get 95% of what I want for free if I installed a good antenna and bought a new television capable of receiving digital (hell, maybe even HDTV) signals.

While I don’t need HDTV or the very best picture (hey, right now I’m watching a 10 year old magnavox, dig?), ghosting, static, or the inability to get one of the major networks would be a deal killer (ok, I don’t need the CW). I live on top of a hill, about 8 miles from downtown Seattle.

Some specific questions:

The guy at Circuit City claimed that broadcast HDTV signals would not have the clarity I’d get from cable or satellite transmissions. True?

Could I buy a recent model used (non-HDTV) TV and still receive digital signals? How long has digital capability been built into sets?

I have Tivo and cannot ever go back. Assuming I can’t buy the new HD Tivo, does using conventional tivos in any way further complicate my plans? I must have at least one dual tuner or two single tuner boxes.

And while I deeply appreciate all the detailed answers you want to give me., I would equally appreciate pointers to primers on the web that will further educate me on these topics. Except don’t just tell me to go to avsforum, unless you can be more specific- I’ve spent a couple hours there already without finding out what I need.
posted by carterk to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
To me it sounds like broadcast TV is a good fit for you. Although you may end up missing Cable/Satellite's variety more than you think you will.

also: the circuit city guy is probably right about HDTV quality, although I don't know for sure.
posted by matkline at 7:08 PM on November 14, 2006

HDTV like all things digital is binary in nature. You'll either get a signal or you will not. You can use a regular TV to get HD signal. I have an HD cable box and my HDTV is in the shop but my regular TV is boasting a much better picture than even DVD (or so it seems) receiving the HD signal. The aspect ratio is off so I have these annoying gray bars.

I don't know why a terrestrial broadcast would differ from cable/satellite in regards to HD. If you're at the very end of the broadcast range you probably would get poor quality, but everything up until the end should be just fine. You will most likely need an HD box to convert the HD signal to something your TV can understand. I assume some SDTVs can receive HD I do not know of any.
posted by geoff. at 7:14 PM on November 14, 2006

OTA reception is horrible. I bought a $25 antenna, it looks atrocious and the very best channel comes in at about 85% the quality of DirecTV. Most channels come in at around 60%. Two channels at around 10%. Also note that the quality will be reduced even more after being filtered through TIVO if you have anything lower than the highest quality setting selected.

That said, solely depending on BitTorrent to get your TV shows is very reliable and a surprisingly easy and automated route to go. Lifehacker has a great article on it. Once downloaded, you can watch it off of your computer (meh) or simply build your own media center . To do this, buy an older computer off eBay (sub $125), get a relatively nice video card that has S-Video, RCA, or even HD-out and hook it up to your TV. Then, for a remote control, get a wireless mouse. If you have a Mac, here's another Lifehacker article that should cover you. (Note: keep in mind that Apple's soon to be released iTV deal could make a lot of this setup much easier and slicker.)

With regard to the legalities, many people will argue that BitTorrenting a show that comes into your house for free is not illegal (now BTing stuff from HBO or Showtime or even F/X is another story).
posted by JPowers at 7:20 PM on November 14, 2006

Welcome back to broadcast, brother, the water's fine.

A good new TV will pull in OTA digital just fine. You might have to invest in a good antenna, and the forums will tell you more about that.

Spend some time on www.avsforum.com, especially the Seattle OTA thread -- and note that that thread is 168 pages long right now so you might want to skip way ahead to, say, page 160 and start there.

TiVo might be a problem. Your new TV will happily tune to digital TV stations but your TiVo won't, so either you live with TiVo-ing analog stations or you buy a Series3 TiVo with its digital TV tuners (and I don't know much about that option).

Cable is evil. 9 channels of OTA + Netflix + DailyShow/Colbert-taped-at-work is nirvana for my household :)
posted by intermod at 7:41 PM on November 14, 2006

My experience using an antenna in Seattle (Capitol Hill) is that it was a pain in the ass. There was just no way to arrange the antenna such that all the channels came in well. You had to readjust it whenever you switched channels. I'd forgotten this experience from my childhood, but even the jolt of nostalgia didn't make it very much fun.

Personally, I have all the shows I watch set up as RSS feeds that my bittorrent client, uTorrent, automatically downloads for me. In that sense it's a bit like tivo. This for me is the ideal solution. I can say more about this if you think it's an option for you.

Building a media center out of spare hardware and open source software is a nontrivial project. Well, in the ideal case it's not too hard, but if you've got even one piece of hardware that Linux doesn't like, you're in for a troubleshooting nightmare.
posted by Hildago at 7:47 PM on November 14, 2006

I'm about 4 miles south of downtown, and I'm working on getting OTA HDTV reception working myself. From my location, a single antenna (indoor only so far) seems to be incapable of getting all of ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and FOX at the same time. ABC seems particularly troublesome even though its transmission tower is right next to NBC's.

I bought a HDHomeRun network dual-tuner HDTV receiver and two DB2 directional antennas which I plan to mount on a mast on the roof. Hopefully that will give me the capability of arranging for one set of channels on one tuner/antenna in the HDHomeRun and the rest of the channels on the other tuner/antenna. I have this set up with the antennas indoors right now, and I can get ABC and NBC most of the time, CBS, PBS, and FOX usually. Weather seems to affect reception quite a bit, and these antennas are currently located on the far side of the house away from the transmission towers up near the ceiling on the ground floor. When I get around to mounting them on the roof, they'll be a full two stories above ground and should have a much better chance at pulling in a solid signal.

The HDHomeRun is an interesting little box. It's got two F-connectors for attaching antennas or plugging into your cable system and an RJ-45 jack for hooking into the network. Then, you can run PC-based DVR software which can communicate over the network with the HDHomeRun, pick a tuner, set a channel, and start receiving the MPEG stream over Ethernet. MythTV supports the HDHomeRun natively and you can manage multiple inputs/tuners with MythTV, which should allow me to get at and record all of the channels I can receive through the two tuners. (Unfortunately, it seems like you have to hit a key or button to switch from input to input instead of merging the two inputs into a linear set of channels. Oh well.) Several other software DVRs have HDHomeRun support as well.

I imagine this sort of arrangement would work pretty well 10-15 miles out also.
posted by xiojason at 8:39 PM on November 14, 2006

Oh, and as for HDTV picture quality, if the Circuit City guy is speaking of only standard-def stuff that the networks upscale for HDTV transmission, he may be right. That stuff looks pretty awful. But if he's talking about actual HDTV programming, he's smoking something. The JD stream you'll get OTA will almost certainly be considerably higher bitrate, providing better quality, than whatever the cable or satellite companies recompress the HD signal to.
posted by xiojason at 8:44 PM on November 14, 2006

Don't listen to Jdpowers, of course if you buy a $25 antenna, you're going to get bad results.

Relying on BT is illegal, slow, will saturate your internet connection, and why waste a couple hundred on a dedicated PC just to watch TV.

Go to antennaweb.org and type in your address. You can see what channels you can receive and what kind of antenna you need.

BTW, if you need to record, you will need to buy a tuner box that will output into your Tivo. You're not going to get HD quality on your regular Tivo, but you will be able to record.
posted by mphuie at 9:31 PM on November 14, 2006

Best answer: In the U.S., DTV is not necessarily HDTV. The quality of the off-air DTV signal is dependent on the broadcast station's technology, the feed it is getting from its sources (networks), and intervening factors between the broadcast antenna and the receiver (although the nature of DTV as a digital medium means that it is generally an "all or nothing" situation for reception, significant noise or signal problems can cause drop frame degradation and intermittent freezing, if that's how the reciever chooses to handle such problems). Most ABC affiliates are choosing to broadcast in 720p, which is technically HDTV, but it is not as sharp as the 1080p program offerings of some cable system offerings, due to the fact the bandwidth allocations for American DTV standards aren't enough to carry such signals, without much heavier compression schemes than are currently practical (the cable companies can set up as much of their system bandwidth as is needed, if they want to offer such programming, and so, don't face the same bandwidth limitation issues as broadcasters do). So, the Circuit City guy is technically right that broadcast DTV may not be absolutely as sharp as cable or satellite offerings, but frankly, the differences in quality may be pretty hard to detect in your home, unless you have the very cream of the crop HD monitors and tuners capable of 1080p.

The big issue for getting free DTV broadcasts is usually recieving a clean signal off the air. It isn't rocket science, but it isn't as easy as in the old VHF analog TV days, either. For one thing, DTV signals are being moved to the UHF band, so that the FCC can get back all the VHF spectrum now used for analog TV in the U.S. Selling this spectrum is going to make the government loads of money (they hope!) and provide us with all kinds of happy new services (consumers sure hope so!). But UHF signals don't propagate as well as VHF signals do, especially over hilly terrain, or around obstacles like trees and buildings, so they are literally "line of sight," signals if you are more than 10 miles or so from the broadcast transmitter. You can find out where the broadcast transmitters in your area are, and your distance from same by using this handy CES station locator and outdoor antenna guide. [Put in your street address, city and zip in the second page, and you'll get back a list of stations, frequencies, and distance and direction of available stations from your address.]

The three key things that determine whether you can get quality DTV signals are:
  • Distance from the broadcast antenna. Less than 1 mile, or more than 10 miles probably means you are going to have to have an outdoor antenna. [If you live right "under" the broadcast antenna, you are technically in a "shadow" of its signal, caused by the highly directional design of a typical UHF broadcast antenna. Some signal energy is always split to a smaller "beam tilt" element in the antenna array, to service very nearby viewers, but it's a hit or miss proposition for people living in places like downtown high rises.] The bigger problem for many people is living in an area served by broadcast stations in different directions, which may call for frequent antenna re-orientation when changing channels, or setting up multi-element antenna systems oriented in several directions.
  • Height of your antenna above "average terrain." Because UHF signals are so easily absorbed by matter, their strength is generally much greater the higher that your receiving antenna is mounted. Partly this is a function of their "line of sight" nature, partly it's due to the curvature of the earth, and partly it's due to the absorption of intervening hills and buildings. If you live in flat Florida or Indiana, and are on the edge of small city with several DTV broadcast station antennas in one direction, all less than 10 miles away, you have a decent chance of getting acceptable signal from an indoor antenna. In most other situations you are going to need an outdoor antenna, mounted as high as you can get it [at least 15 feet above local ground, and preferably higher].
  • Intervening terrain and obstacles. If you live in hilly country, or near trees or tall buildings, or if there are hills or tall buildings between you and the broadcast antennas whose signals you are trying to recieve, you may not get acceptable signal even with a roof mounted outdoor antenna. Many people in what used to be "far fringe" rural areas for VHF signals will have this problem. Even setting up an outside tower of 60 feet or greater height may not help. If you're in that situation, satellite or cable system are really your only option at that address.
So start with finding out where you are in relation to your broadcast antennas, using the CES guide above, and go out and look around your area for hills and obstacles. That will give you a pretty good idea of whether OTA DTV is feasible in your location, or not. Don't be afraid to ask your neighbors, either, and see who is using what, and with what success. A lot of people are trying things now, and many are happy to share stories. Local knowledge is important for solving OTA reception issues.

And feel free to contact your local broadcast stations for advice; I used to work as a broadcast engineer, and often had calls from viewers referred to me for follow up, if there were complaints or questions related to reception of our signal. In these Web days, most stations are putting DTV reception info on their Web sites, but a lot of them are also making their engineering staffs available for viewer questions, as they learn about what works and what doesn't, after making big DTV investments in their stations. So ask.
posted by paulsc at 10:47 PM on November 14, 2006

HD reception has a lot to do with location. I recently moved three blocks in Chicago and because of the way my new apartment is situated I lost half of my OTA HDTV channels. The problem is I'm blocked in by several mid and highrises where before I had a clear view of downtown where all the signals originate.

In the city OTA HDTV signals can bounce around in weird ways which can kill your reception... out in the burbs things are supposed to work better. (I need to invest in an amplified antenna or a booster to get my signal back...)

As for quality it's fantastic.

Buy the hardware you need, try it out and if you don't like it take it back for a refund.
posted by wfrgms at 10:50 PM on November 14, 2006

A $25 antenna should be just fine, provided you install it properly (and that's the tricky part). Hell, some people make their own with cardboard, a few tacks, and a few lengths of wire.
posted by Good Brain at 11:12 PM on November 14, 2006

The guy at Circuit City claimed that broadcast HDTV signals would not have the clarity I’d get from cable or satellite transmissions. True?

Not really. HDTV is digital and features error-checking and correction, so it will basically either come in perfectly, or not at all. (There is a middle ground where you can get some nasty artifacts but still have a picture, but that middle ground is a lot smaller than it is with analog.) You will definitely not get ghosting or snow.

The OTA signal will actually probably be slightly better than what you get off the satellite, as the satellite signal will likely have at least one extra generation of lossy compression.
posted by kindall at 11:30 PM on November 14, 2006

Over on this side of the Atlantic, if your antenna is indoors and you complain about reception, we'll just point and laugh.

Seriously - you wouldn't expect to get decent satellite reception by laying the dish out on the back porch and pointing it vaguely in the right direction. Get a decent aerial and get someone who knows what she's doing to install it.

And don't skimp on the cables. A hundred bucks now will save you -- well, it'll save *you* fifty dollars in two months' time.
posted by genghis at 8:43 AM on November 15, 2006

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